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Apartment Swapping

Christopher Corr

Photo: Christopher Corr

Any lingering trepidation disappeared when we arrived at the Paris apartment and were greeted by the Peroux's housekeeper, Madame Mercier. The Newton family had just left to spend a few more days in the Burgundy house. Madame Mercier was changing sheets. Did we want to sleep, she asked? Non, merci, we replied, and set out for Jean-Michel's favorite bakery—he had left explicit directions with a hand-drawn map. It was 8 a.m. and there was a long line. Two perfect baguettes, three croissants, and the ultimate lemon tart later, we felt fortified enough to tackle the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Champs-Élysées.

When we returned to the apartment, we were better able to take its measure. The bedrooms were almost unbelievably small. Jean-Michel had warned us that the washing machine, which was in the kitchen, was tiny—but not that it could easily be mistaken for a bread box. Still, the apartment was just what we needed: the kids each had a room, the living room came with a CD player and TV, and the one bathroom suited us fine. Most appealingly, the apartment was in the China Town section of the 13th Arrondissement, one of the few areas in Paris that has no major tourist attractions. The air smelled wonderful there, faintly of soy sauce and rice wine. The buildings were contemporary concrete and glass mixed with 19th-century storefronts and apartments. All of the signs, on the school across the street and on the tiny hotels and shops, were in both Chinese and French. In several small, neat parks I noticed old people practicing Tai Chi or reading Chinese newspapers. Many of the houses had courtyard gardens visible from the street. Sidewalk vendors sold crêpes, penny candy, nuts, and—the kids' favorite—foot-long rainbow-colored frozen ice concoctions called Géants. We wanted to sample the neighborhood's Chinese and Thai food, but the first night, we simply stopped by a grocery and bought our idea of a French dinner: bread, cheese, pâté, prosciutto, fruit, and cookies, which we ate seated on bar stools at the kitchen counter.

That night, despite jet lag, none of us slept well. Our first-floor bedroom faced the street, and the sounds of Saturday nightlife filled every crevice. We later discovered that on weekday mornings, garbage trucks, motorcycles, and gabbing pedestrians competed with the din of the school kids at recess. But we quickly grew accustomed to the sounds and rhythms of the neighborhood. They became our Paris sound track.

By the time the Newton family returned from Burgundy a couple of days later, we pretty much knew our way around the city. Still, their tips on Paris and Burgundy restaurants, a video store, and shops (for Megan, their teenage girls recommended the Gap-like chain Kookaï and Printemps) were helpful. Best of all, they brought the family car, with warnings about the tiny underground garage slot. Sure enough, when my husband went to park the van, it was like trying to wedge an elephant into a phone booth. Both side mirrors had to be folded in. Then he had to scramble over the seats and climb out through the back. How could he help but nick the bumper backing out?

Our city routine began to take shape: I'd run in a nearby park, then undo any benefits by a stop at the boulangerie. After a full day of exploring—the Latin Quarter, Monet's house and gardens in Giverny, the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Musée D'Orsay, the view from the top of La Samaritaine department store—we'd cook at home, or hit one of the restaurants on Jean-Michel's list. Some evenings, we'd walk to our neighborhood Géant, a hard-to-believe cross between Zabar's and Wal-Mart, selling everything from dish soap to a dozen kinds each of Roquefort and Brie to nicely made costumes and Tin Tin- and Babar-themed school supplies. Nick was thrilled to pick up a book devoted—in French—to NBA superstar Karl Malone.

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